Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Meeting Notes: May 21, 2008

"The Founding of the Continental Navy," John F. Millar

The May 21, 2008 meeting of the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond, Virginia was held at 6:00 p.m. in the Westhampton Room of the University of Richmond. The speaker was John F. Millar, who was ably introduced by Jerry Rudd in Lynn Simms' absence. Mr. Millar graduated from Harvard in 1966, was born in New York City and has lived in Rhode Island and the UK. He currently resides in Williamsburg and operates a bed and breakfast there.

Mr. Millar was responsible for building a full sized operational copy of the 1756 24 Gun British Frigate “Rose” and the circa 1770 12-gun Continental Navy Sloop "Providence" to help celebrate the Bicentennial. He's not currently connected with either ship and in fact the "Rose" was used in the movie Master and Commander and is now docked in San Diego with the name "Surprise" which was its cinematic name.

Mr. Millar came dressed as a captain in the Continental Navy with red and blue colors. These uniforms turned out to be not exactly the best choice as far as colors are concerned because the British Navy finally decided on blue and white and it would have been better had the Americans dressed in the same colors. Then, upon being spotted in spyglasses by the British, perhaps they would not have been fired upon so readily. Mr. Millar also passed around "Johnny cakes" which were cornmeal pancakes of the day with the "secret ingredient" that was a main topic of his talk ("rum").

Back then, it was very difficult to preserve food. One of the ways was to preserve flour with rum. Molasses is used to make rum but in those days, by virtue of the "Sugar Act," by law Americans could only export molasses to another English colony (in order to preserve English trade). It so happened that Haiti, one of the French islands, had oceans of molasses, but the French did not want molasses exported to France for fear of adversely affecting brandy - the holy grail in France! So Haiti offered free molasses to the American colonies. However, the English colonies (except for Rhode Island as referenced below) had English governors appointed by the Crown. Thus those English governors said "no" to this offer because of its potentially bad effects on English trade.

However, Rhode Island had originally been established with an elected governor and elected public officials as an experiment in religious toleration. It was pointed out to the King that if in fact the governor were not elected by the people, then this experiment in religious toleration would certainly fail. Thus, the king went along and the governor was elected along with the other officials.

This set the stage for the governor of Rhode Island, who was beholden to the electorate as opposed to the King, to go ahead and take Haiti up on its offer of free molasses. As a side note, Mr. Millar pointed out that it seemed strange that Virginia imported so much rum from Rhode Island. Of course Rhode Island didn't grow sugar cane and also it seemed that Virginia would have been filled with alcoholics to have imported so much rum. The answer, of course, was it was first of all because of the offer of free molasses from Haiti but also because rum, having been converted from molasses, was the food preservative of choice. Thus, it would be nothing for lots and lots of rum to be found in Virginia kitchens.

In 1763 the French and Indian War came to an end and the Sugar Act was abolished. This was again the law which had prohibited all of the English colonies (i.e., American colonies) from exporting molasses to any colony other than an English colony. However, as a result, a big duty was imposed. Thus, Rhode Island, which had been the unintended beneficiary of this law, had to resort to smuggling.

What happened then was that the British Navy would send small ships to Rhode Island to try to stop this smuggling. Also, the British forces would try to conscript American sailors and press them into service on their own ships. However, the law in England which granted this right, exempted Americans.

Well, Stephen Hopkins, who was the governor of Rhode Island at the time, went aboard the first British ship that came in and basically told the 19-year-old lieutenant who was the commander to "buzz off" and stop conscripting Americans. The 19 year old commander said "buzz off yourself" and gave him five minutes to leave his ship, whereupon Hopkins went to the fort there in the harbor and told the gunner to sink that schooner. This was the schooner "St. John."

On July 9, 1764 the gunner went ahead and trained his guns onto St. John. (In fact, as Mr. Millar pointed out, these shots on St. John were really the first of the American resistance.) The St. John didn't know what else to do, so it cut anchor and sailed away.

The British sent three more ships, which were in turn burned and whenever a letter would to come to inquire as to what in the world was going on, the Americans would finally send a letter back saying they didn't know exactly what happened but they would form a commission to look into it. In each case a commission was formed and their reply back to the crown was that as far as they knew, the people involved in burning these ships were "persons unknown from Connecticut!" Thereupon the English offered quite a large reward which at the time amounted to over a million dollars. It's quite interesting that no Rhode Islander would come forward to collect that reward although virtually everyone in the state knew at least someone who had been involved in the burning of these ships.

Stephen Hopkins then had the idea to write letters all over the colonies and to set up these "committees of correspondence." (Anyway this is the very first of the setting up of these "committees of correspondence.")

The committees didn't work so Hopkins said "let's meet in Philadelphia and talk about it" and that was of course the First Continental Congress which really met even before the Boston Tea Party. However, as Mr. Millar pointed out, these actions by Rhode Island have been lost in history. No one remembers that Rhode Island really led the way in these early acts of resistance against the Crown.

Finally, in 1774 the English sent the "Rose" which was a 24 gun British frigate. (Remember the copy that Mr. Millar built above.) That of course stopped the smuggling as it was a much larger and deadlier ship. It was about that time that four brothers in Rhode Island would become quite wealthy with all the molasses and rum and founded Brown University. (Another Millar sidenote: their wealth came approximately 90% from rum and molasses and 10% from the slave trade. Thus, it really is not true that Brown University was founded on the "backs of slavery").

Mr. Hopkins had Congress form an American Navy and the first ship was a sloop called "Providence" (Again, remember the other ship built above). Thus, the American Navy was formed with only one ship.

Hopkins got Congress to approve ships on a piecemeal basis so by January, 1776 they had eight more ships. One of the questions was where was the crew going to come from to man these ships? It turned out that there were so many unemployed seafaring citizens in Rhode Island, that that's where the crew came from. These citizens had been formerly of the smuggling trade.

The way the Navy was set up is that the head of the Navy would have no power and the various captains of the ships would vote to decide what to do. Governor Hopkins' brother became head of the Navy and the first mission, instead of heading north to Providence, was to go down to Nassau to try to get some gun powder from the British which hadn’t been guarded very carefully. Unfortunately for the expedition, the British got wind of this expedition and sent their gunpowder to Florida. The Americans did grab some cannons which frankly were not that great.

In any event, after this expedition the Navy did go up to Rhode Island to try to get rid of the Rose. They arrived on April 8, 1776 but the Rose had left voluntarily on April 7 not knowing that the Americans were headed their way. And, of course the Americans didn't know that the Rose had left a day earlier.

In any event, on May 4, 1776 Rhode Island declared independence from England which again, was two months earlier than the rest of the colonies. So, Rhode Island was really the first to declare independence even though it was one of the last to ratify the Constitution after the war!

Another footnote about the Continental Navy: frankly it was hard to get sailors because so many of them really wanted to work as privateers where they could get more "booty" and not be subject to imprisonment by the British Navy.

After the war, Benedict Arnold, then in London, felt that it would be in Britain's interest to have the American maritime commerce thrive. The trouble was that there were so many Arab pirates around that the Americans really could not protect their own ships. So it came to pass with the British ships guarded the American ships. King George III informed John Adams, who was America's first ambassador in London at that time and he hightailed it down to the docks and sent a letter off to Congress about the King's decision (to protect American shipping) and so our Navy was dissolved because the British Navy was guarding our ships. However it came to pass later that the British Navy was needed to guard its own shores and thus the Continental Navy was started up again sometime later.

Finally, Mr. Millar pointed out that Stephen Hopkins, who was frankly one of John Adams' main mentors, really founded the post office even though credit is often given to Benjamin Franklin instead. Apparently Hopkins actually introduced the resolution about the post office and merely suggested that his friend Benjamin Franklin take charge. That's how Benjamin Franklin apparently was given credit for having founded the post office even though he really was only asked to come in at the behest of Mr. Hopkins.

Suffice it to say that Mr. Millar's talk was quite informative and interesting and was made more so by some of his tales of how he went about to build the copies of the two ships, the “Rose” and the “Providence”. From all of this we can be assured that Rhode Island certainly figured quite prominently in the formation of the Continental Navy!